Thursday, August 09, 2007
Unsolved Mystery Novels; Might Be A Ghost Stories
What examples can you give me of works of literature - big famous ones will do nicely; others, too - about which it seems right to say: we don’t know happened. In a fairly consequential way. A Joe Friday, ‘just the facts’, who-is-who, who did what, way. (Yes, of course, there may be cases in which it isn’t clear what counts as ‘the facts’. I’m not a bleating epistemological lambkin, you know.)
There are a number of famous ‘ghost stories’ in which studied ambiguity is maintained betwixt supernaturalism/unreliable narration and just plain insufficient data: Henry James, Turn of the Screw; Herman Melville, The Confidence Man; Toni Morrison, Beloved. (Others?) There’s Pale Fire, of course. I can’t actually come up with many non-supernatural cases, although probably that’s just me.
I gather The Sopranos went out on an ambiguous note, although I don’t know (and don’t tell me what it was.)
I seems to me that maybe short stories are the place to look, but I can’t think of examples off-hand.
Peace by Gene Wolfe.
Yes! I should have gotten that one.
Don’t forget E.A. Poe. Certainly one of the originators of the psychologically unreliable first-person narrator (cribbed in part from Godwin’s Caleb Williams, I suspect).
David Lynch has made an entire (wonderful) career on ambiguous narratives. His are perhaps among the most experimental outside outright avant-garde film.
Of course, there is always Renais’s Last Year at Marienbad. Which of course brings up Robbe-Grillet....
In the cinema, some level of narrative ambiguity (though not necessarily as much as you are asking about) was just about an expected convention of 50s/60s European art film (Fellini, Antonioni, etc.).
(I know that’s more film than literature, but there you have it...).
The nouveau roman should qualify, esp Robbe-Grillet and Pinget, if I understand correctly.
Hoffmann, “The Sand-Man”
William Gibson, “The Gernsback Continuum”
Every novel by John Hawkes, but especially:
*The Lime Twig*
*Virginie: Her Two Lives*
Every novel by Thomas Pynchon
Faulkner, *Absalom, Absalom* and *The Sound and the Fury*
Auster, *New York Trilogy*
Djuna Barnes, *Nightwood*
Ellis, American Psycho. Most of Murakami’s novels.
It seems to me most good ghost/horror stories fit this description, and such large numbers of ghost stories from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries fit the description that I’d say it nearly universally applies to all well-written ghost stories from that era. Stories from MR James, Oliver Onions, Wakefield, Blackwood, Machen and Hodgson all fit.
Carlo Emilio Gadda’s That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana meets some of the description (a murder investigation that never solves the murder).
Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280, The Killer Inside Me and The Nothing Man all have grossly unreliable narrators.
Much of Leonardo Sciascia’s work fits.
In terms of film: Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin, Welles’ F for Fake, Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating, Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, Rivette’s Paris Belongs to Us.
An example of an ambiguous short story…
Hills Like White Elephants --E. Hemingway
For Jim Thompson, Savage Night and maybe A Hell of a Woman are the best examples.
A lot of Harlan Ellison; a lot of Kate Wilhelm.
Wieland? Dhalgren? Ubik?
Would Eco’s ‘Island of the Day Before’ qualify?
Edward Gorey, The Willowdale Handcar.
Almost anything by Ford Madox Ford.
Wilson Harris, *The Palace of the Peacock*
Toni Morrison, *Paradise*
Kathy Acker, *Blood and Guts in High School*
The Quincunx by Charles Palliser. Two possible interpretations that were intended by the author; one other that was put in there after ...
The last chapter of Nella Larsen’s Passing.
The last part (book three) of Wolfe’s Fifth Head of Cerberus.
I guess Dick’s Ubik qualifies, though if not for the very last chapter I wouldn’t think so.
There’s a once-famous short story by Robert Silverberg, “Sundance,” that certainly belongs to this category.
It makes sense that works of sf, where the novum or premise asks us to suspend our ideas of what’s real at the outset, should often belong to this category. (So much for David Hartwell’s claim that sf is the “other” of modernism.)
The Obscene Bird of Night by Jose Donoso, Chile. All the characters are insane and the narrative skips between past and present within sentences and gives two or more versions of reality within a breath. Hard enough working out which characters even exist. Amazing novel.
"Our Story” by Frank Stockton. Or, I suppose, “The Lady or the Tiger”.
Maybe Knut Hamsun’s Pan? I read it only once ages ago but I recall there being something funny going on with the ending. Mysteries is pretty odd too but I can’t remember whether or not everything gets resolved.
Some of Shirley Jackson’s stories might fit.
David Markson, Wittgenstein’s Mistress
Molloy, by Samuel Beckett, or any of the trilogy, but Molloy in particular. Why does Moran have to find Molloy? How/why are parts I and II connected? I could ask forever, and I’ll go on forever confused.
Kleist’s “The Marquise von O” (is that the name? I’m not 100% sure). Some people don’t even pick up on the ambiguity, but once it pops, you just can’t stop.
You could say that we don’t know where Uncle Toby was wounded in Tristram Shandy, but maybe that’s too jokey to qualify.
<poker-faced> The Bible.
I’ll agree with Holbo about David Lynch. Here’s my article about Zizek, Lynch, and unraveling ghost stories:
(scroll down to “Singular Lynch")